Newspaper Column #13: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part V

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on Sunday Jan 20, 2013 edition.

Change Happens at the Speed of Thinking about the Whole Rather than of Our Individual Parts

How did “Uncle solve the problem”?  Ignoring is not solving.

Should we see a fire at the corner of our house, caused say, by dry leaves, we know what to do.

We would find ways to put it out by cutting off the supply of oxygen that feeds the fire.  We can do that because our effort to correct it, i.e. beating it down with sticks, or throwing sand or water on it can be greater than the effort by the fuel that feeds the fire.  It is easy said and done.

But imagine this, if the fire is caused by a gas pipe from afar that is growing steadily in size and supplies fuel at a rate faster than the effort we can make to put it out.  Dousing it even with foam by fire engines, will not make much difference.  And, to make matters worse, we can’t see the pipe.  This is now easier said than done.

The thinking that says, “Put out the fire” stops working here.  It even becomes life threatening.

The thinking that says, “What is causing the fire?”, and deal with the cause, now becomes relevant to change.  Even lifesaving.


Many persistent issues of the day are like the second type of fire.  There are things happening, beyond what we can see (the obvious fire) that keeps ‘feeding the  issue’.  These keep bringing the problem back, stronger each time.

I find one murderer or rapist or fraudster or thief and put him behind bars.  That does not mean that another is not ‘being created’ somewhere else.

Any police (as well as military and judiciary) organizations in the world have not only existed but grown as much as they have today, because we have not asked the question, “What is causing the fire?”  At least not yet.

We had been with the question, “How do we put out the fire that we can see?”  It is a necessary correction but not a solution.  We would need to expect the problem to return despite our efforts.

There are tons more in every nation:  water shortages, health concerns, industrial growth, unemployment, destitution, labour conflicts, economic diversification (or its lack of), wildlife diseases, poaching, land use conflicts, food security, pollution, divorces, work productivity, HIV/AIDs epidemics, floods, droughts, debts, household income levels, crop production, just to name a few are examples of persistent issues.  These are issues political parties everywhere find ways to pick bones with each other and feed off its fire.

The story of the mother-in-law (MIL) and daughter-in-law (DIL) (The full ‘Healing Poison’ story first appeared in the column on Jan 13, 2013), is a classic example of the second kind of fire.

We find the story of MIL-DIL resonate the world over.  They do not share the same MIL or DIL, but they share the same story.   They do not enjoy a relationship the way they do with their own mothers or daughters which typically grows better over time.  In some societies, they may even go so far as to kill off each other.  Literally.  In others, we avoid this phenomenon altogether by choosing not to marry at all.

But choosing to ignore it (e.g. staying apart), does not mean the problem is solved.  It may  postpone it by “sweeping it under the carpet”.  But that does not mean the problem is gone.  Should we “lift the carpet”, the problem is still there.  Just out of sight.  For now.

In the story, we know the uncle solved the problem.  Quietly but surely.  What would you say he did to keep it solved?  Last week we explored the metaphor of the boiled frog and we said,

“For frogs to be boiled, the frogs must not know they are being boiled.

For change to happen (completely), change must not know it is happening.”

So, the uncle, boiled “the frogs” between MIL and DIL.  What would you say he was boiling?  Did you say their attitudes?  Yes, you are right!

How did he do that?  Remember, he was not even ‘at the scene of the crime’?  How did he manage to change their attitudes, without managing (think performance management, coaching, mentoring, etc.) their performance?

And I mentioned there were ten things that happened in the story between MIL and DIL  In this edition we will explore a few of them.  What were they?

No judgment

Most uncles, should the DIL complain to him about MIL, would either take things in his hand and set up a terse meeting with the MIL or take the DIL to task and say, that’s not how a DIL should behave and then set the rules.

How about this uncle?  He says, “You want to kill MIL?  Wait here, we will do it together!”

Should he have judged the DIL, it would have been quite easy for the DIL to say, “Wrong uncle!  Go need to find the right one.”

What allowed him not to judge either side?  Notice he paid less attention to what they said or did but rather to look for the vicious cycle that has now taken over and is ruling their lives viciously.  He needed to find a way to ‘heal the circle of causality’ and turn it around.  When the cycle turns around (cycles are both good and bad news), the events go away themselves.   That’s the healing in the “Healing Poison” story.

Start small

Notice he created steps not to ‘jerk’ the system for a quick correction.  Cycles do not respond to such corrections.  Events may.  But not cycles.  Should he have called for an urgent meeting, ‘the frogs would have jumped out’.  They would have either absconded the meeting or appears and agrees but does not carry out the actions (it is the same as absconding) to full.

He needed to boil their attitudes to change.  To do so, he had to start small.  How small was it?  As small as a smile.  The longer the cycle had been running, the smaller the action needs to be, to reverse the effects of the cycle.  That’s the nature of causality.

Work smart with delays

The uncle devised a way for the DIL to continue with the act of smiling.  To do so, he tricked her into believing that if she did not do carry out the act for six months, or tried to change things too quickly, somebody might suspect it is her.

Why?  This is to allow, the timed needed for changes in the story to lead on in ways that give the people the choice to make their own change, as a result of changes that are happening to them by their realities.

Of course, the change between MIL and DIL will happen even faster when the two can see the circular causality that is causing them to run in circles.  Just as the uncle could “see it”.  Change will then happen in a snap!  That’s how fast change can really be.  But till we see the cycle, the change has not changed yet.

What do you think are the remaining seven things that happened in the story?

Next week, we open a brand new subject and deepen these lessons in turn.  We will explore HIV/AIDs and what causes its viral nature regardless of anywhere in the world, be it India, China, Europe, America or here in Africa.

Meanwhile, google its behaviour of growth over time.  Go back to the 1980s.  What do you notice?  Has it been stubborn?  “What is causing the fire?”  What does the gas pipe look like?  And we know, it is not the truck drivers.  Yet they do make an interesting metaphor for the cause.  Smile.

Wishing you a great week ahead of discovery and learning.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, from Singapore works as a national Strategy Development Consultant working with national planning commissions.  She welcomes comments at  For upcoming programmes, refer to

Newspaper Column #9: Why do some problems defy, no, NOT change? – Part I

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 16, 2012 edition.

Dynamic Complexity vs. Detail Complexity

We face problems daily.  And, we do not doubt our ability to deal with them.

Sometimes, this confidence can pull wool over our heads that we can deal even with the stubborn ones, in much the same way.  We would say to ourselves, just work harder.  We will overcome it.

Stubborn problems are issues that despite efforts to manage or contain it, while it first they may look like they are relenting, the results are short-lived (two-to-three years).  And, then it comes back again, this time harder and faster.

For example, in our efforts to survive arid conditions, we engage in pastoral farming.  Except, over time, such practices wipe out the greens (as when livestock consume grass) that would otherwise encourage rainfall.  In some countries, this means it gets only summer rainfall.  This causes conditions to become arid even further.

Notice, however, when droughts strike, they wipe out the livestock numbers.  This is an attempt by the system to do a correction, so as to recover itself.  The correction by the system is usually not that visible to us.  We now have a stubborn problem in our hands.

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

Can you tell, who comes across as more stubborn?

I am sure you can think of lots of other examples of stubborn problems.  Economic growth declines.  Lack of wage increases.  Divorce rates.  Rainfall levels and/or water tables (Nov/Dec 2012 series of this column).  New HIV/AIDs infection (coming in Jan 2013).  Unemployment (October 2012 series).  National school grades.  Performance in agriculture, manufacturing and retail sectors.  Economic diversification.  Crime.  Obesity.  Diabetes.  Road accidents.  Poaching.  Budget deficits.  Wars.  These are some, among others.

Firstly, the stubborn nature in such issues is usually not that easily visible at the onset, till we have had to face them for years on end, sometimes even decades.  It escapes our attention even for the best of us when tasked to manage them for the short-term (three-to-five years).

As legislatures, managers and enforcers we believe in the power of our word or our hands and feet to make a difference to such problems.  We become effective at doling out corrections each time the problem surfaces.

And when we fail to do so, it looks like project implementation is not taking off or the officer or the function is not performing well.  The enemy is out there.  Or, we may sometimes, shrug them off as ‘things that are beyond our borders and therefore our control’.

Where such problems exist, managing one time occurrences are easy.  Recurrence makes them tough.

Two kinds

However, to understand why such problems resist change, we need to first understand what causes their persistence.  To do so, it helps to appreciate that there are two kinds of complexity.  Detail and dynamic complexity.

Most organizations (and professions) are designed to deal with the first kind.  Detail complexity.  As it would be, when one “drills down”.  How many baskets did we sell last month?  What was our profit this year?  How many permits did we issue?  How many crimes were committed?

We are not quite organized to deal with the second.  What causes sales or profits to keep falling?  Or why does crime keep rising?

But first, what does the word complexity mean here?  The dictionary says “it consists of related parts” (as in composites) or “complicated” (as in a complex problem).

But it is perhaps the Latin word “complexus” from which this word derives its meaning that sets it apart for us.  It says “embracing, interwoven”.

To see the interwoven nature of a problem, it would require our minds to “zoom out” from the problem.  However, our years of drilling our minds down to details, makes the experience of letting go of the problem to see its dynamic nature, a new and rather anxious one for many of us.  It is understandable.

However, when we do not see the interwoven nature of these issues, it makes some of the most persistent issues of the day, well … remain stubborn.   Yet the solutions to some of our most pressing issues lie in learning to see and work with this interwoven nature.  There is no easy way out.  No shortcuts.  No magic pill.  Unfortunately.

First, let’s see what the interwoven nature of a problem would look like.

Interwoven nature of reality

We shall use an example.

Let’s go back to 2001.  9/11: The day when the two planes hit the World Trade Centre.  Notice what happened.  Overnight, airports around the world responded in exactly the same way.  First stunned.  And then a mad scramble to ‘shore its security’.  Yes?

Overnight, we saw passengers snake their way over two-hour waits to security screens.  No belt, shoe or stone were left unturned.  Do you remember those days?

One passenger underwent several levels of security screenings.  A typical airport would have thousands of passengers passing through its doors in a single day.  In a month or in a year, we would say well, that was a lot of work!

What would you call that kind of complexity?  This is what we refer to as ‘Detail Complexity’.

Most professions and performance management systems have their focus on this.

Systemic Thinking on the other hand, focusses its attention on ‘Dynamic Complexity’.

Let’s go back to the same context.

To find the dynamic complexity we start by asking, ‘why did we do what we did’?  Why did we build those screens?

Well we say it was important to do that so as to ‘weed the terrorists out’.

Yet, should we go across to “the enemy”, and ask the question, “From your view, who would you say, is the terrorist?”  What do you think would be their answer?  Did somebody whisper, “The other side”.  You bet!

So what do you notice?

Can you see what causes its recurrence?  Some might add, the recurrence has been happening since biblical times.  If so, will doing ‘corrections’ by one side acting on the other’ ever put a stop to the other side doing its corrections to us?   We know, that will not stop the problem.  And continuing to fight ‘the other side’, becomes very expensive.

But notice this dynamic complexity view becomes clearer to see when we zoom away from the bustle of managing the activities at the airports.

Why is it important to see this inter-relationship?  How then, do we handle such problems?  How do we handle Dynamic Complexities?

This will be the subject of the 2nd part of this article.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions welcomes comments at  For upcoming programmes, refer to

Newspaper Column #8: Have Greens, Will Rain! – Part V

As it appeared in the Sunday Standard, Botswana on  Sunday Dec 9, 2012 edition.

Actions have consequences

When we bring a bowser to a place that needs water, is that a solution to, or a relief from the problem?

The test will be, if that’s the only time we have had to do it.  Then it is a solution.  Otherwise, it is a measure to stop the gap.  But the gap remains there.

To take care of recurrent (persistent) nature of water shortages of a nation, we would have to take care of the water cycle.  The whole cycle.  Not parts of it (as excerpted from Part IV of this series).

Except the truth is, most of us and organizations, be they units, departments, sometimes even whole Ministries are not designed to do so.  We work at best in parts.  And, as citizens, we have not mandated anyone to do so, otherwise.  Not as yet.

This allows stubborn problems to slip away from our focus, but they return to haunt us (you and I) more deeply each year.  It is a reminder of work to be done as yet.

The water cycle is one example of circles of causality, we have been ignoring for decades.  There are many more.

Nature of cycles

The cycle can go two ways (see Picture 1).


They could either reinforce positively or negatively.  When the cycle reinforces positively, we would see the world around us look more like the Amazons.  When the same cycle reinforces the other way, we would see the Sahara unfold right in front of our eyes.  The outcomes may be different.  But the circular causality is the same.  The difference is in knowing which way the cycle is reinforcing for us?

Causes of reality

In the last article, I left a question:  What are the consequences of the following actions on the water cycle?  Run a test against the cycle.  (see Table 1)

Table 1: What are the impacts over time of the following actions on the water cycle?

Action Plan Given and constraints Consequence Impact
Growing drought-resistant varieties of crops? Given there are already large-scale existence of drought-resistant plants that we grow in our gardens, and as vegetation and forests on the land. Persistent growth of such varieties cause persistent reduction of transpiration by plants and therefore the atmospheric moisture in the region Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water tables over time
Producing livestock that depend on greens? When number of livestock exceeds carrying capacity of the land, it leads animals (including wildlife) to consume greens at rates faster than at which they may rejuvenate. Sees wipe outs of greens and humus in the topsoil needed to see sustained growth of vegetation leading to non-sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time
Production of brews? It can take up to ten cans of water to produce one can of beer.   When the consumption of water exceeds the water table recharge levels, it causes the distance between the topsoil and the water table to increase. Sees wipe outs of greens and humus in the topsoil needed to see sustained growth of vegetation.  The land appears drier, leading to non-sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time
Drilling or deepening of boreholes? When the rate of extraction of water table exceeds recharge levels, it causes the gaps between topsoil and the water table to increase. Sees wipe outs of greens and humus in the topsoil needed to see sustained growth of vegetation.  The land appears drier, leading to non-sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time
Presence of dams? One dam-full of water could see up to two-thirds of its water evaporate from its surfaces. The rate of evaporation is too fast unlike the more organic pace of transpiration by plants.  The land appears drier, leading to non- sustainable levels of transpiration. Negative.  Would see reduced levels of rainfall and water table over time

What do you notice?  While our actions were intended to be a response to declining water tables, continuing to take these actions, actually deepens the decline even further!

And as we do so, rainfall levels pushes downwards further.  On the surface, it would look like as if public and private sector initiatives and project implementation efforts are not taking off (see Table 2).

Table 2: What are the consequences (from over 20, 30, 40 year periods ago) of a negatively reinforcing water cycle on the following?

Growing of crops and raw materials (primary industries)  Negative
Food security  Negative
Sustained growth of secondary industries  Negative
Sustained growth of tertiary industries  Negative
Capacity to diversify and develop a manufacturing base  Negative
Competitiveness / Growth of profit margins of retail sector organizations  Negative
Growth of tax revenues from agriculture, manufacturing &  retail sectors  Negative
Growth of wages  Negative
Growth of employment in the formal sectors  Negative
Growth of household incomes  Negative

The reality is not merely at the mercy of the terrains we live in.  They are also the consequences of our actions.

What is happening?

While these cycles are natural systems, they are leading us (yes, even the humans within the system) to take decisions, that reinforce the direction the cycle is already heading into.  It is the self-seeking nature of the cycle that causes that to us.

Unknown to us, our thinking is now becoming set within these cycles.  It happens to the best of us.

It is easy to blame organizations out there.  It is harder to blame our thinking here.  Systemic Thinking offers a way to catch ourselves being trapped in such thinking.

So, should we take off from the next corporate retreat with a solution that we come up with, or would we need to first uncover together the circle of causality that keeps returning these problems to us?

You are right!  We need to be mindful of the latter.

What would we need to do, to solve the problem of water shortages then?  The clue is in the circle of causality (see Picture 2).


Take another look at the cycle the parts before “Level of Rainfall” (bottom right corner).  What do you see is leading up to it?  Does it say “Level of vegetation and (top right corner) and further up in the cycle, “levels of surface and underground moisture”?

That becomes a systemic solution.  “Have more greens, will rain more”.

This is the final segment of this five part series of this article.   In the New Year, we will work on understanding the persistent nature of HIV, its causes and its effects and how we may turn it around.

Ms Sheila Damodaran, an international strategy development consultant for national planning commissions welcomes comments at  For upcoming programmes, refer to

Article 2: Setting goals is the easy part. Reaching them is not!


It is a management question.

Are you there yet?  What are you doing to get there?  Have you set goals for you and your team?

Yet, setting of goals is really the easy part.  And there are tons of research and help on how we may do so and even on how to manage the settings.  Making out a list of “Things to do today” is one such everyday activity and we are pretty good at it.

However, reaching them is another story.  And there is not as much research on why it does not happen or how it may happen for our organizations.  And not to say, much help.

It is an area that we stay quiet on.  Sometimes, even a undiscussable.


And we learn over time with experience that using charisma, meeting of heads, efforts at cascading, seeking to agree, cajole, counsel and sometimes even assuming punitive stances does not realistically make that much of a difference in reaching those goals or implementing programmes as an institution or as a nation in a sustainable way.

And we may carry out various activities to do so.  Be it implementing performance management systems, setting of directives, designing project management, re-engineering business processes, coaching, mentoring, going for corporate retreats, organizing seminars, conferences, district and village meetings and signing of memorandums, monitoring and evaluation and so on.  The list of work required to reach those goals is seemingly endless and appears necessary.  But the price we pay as a nation is heavy (including for our attorneys).

We all know this deeply; though we may not necessarily say it out aloud.  We do lead ourselves to believe they work, and yet sometimes we would rather choose to continue to lower our standards in reality to meet realistic levels of achievement over time and not understand what’s getting in the way of reaching those goals.   The former is easier.  The latter is harder.  And we are sometimes not aware that such things may be happening to us.  Often we assume the reason is the fault of the employee, or of the team manager or of the market or of the citizens or even the global recession.  And we get away by blaming “them out there”.  We get away with crime!

However, the bottom line is the ability of the organization and / or of the nation to sustain itself.

When we do not do so, it usually shows up in our balance sheets as deficits.  Eventually.  Sometimes sooner than we expect leading us to make call outs to government for bailouts, bank loans or grants and aids.  Nevertheless, we would start the same rigmarole all over again when given a second chance.


What are we not learning?

The reasons cited above are what we see on the tip.  The obvious reasons.

The ones the problems present to us if we are not careful in search for the reasons more deeply.  Those are usually not the real ones.

If you have come this far, I am sure you are not surprised by this conclusion.  The real reasons are less obvious because they have become what we call cyclical in nature or assumes a systemic quality.   Systemic because of key interrelationships (vicious circles) that have taken on a quality of recurrent influence / causality over time.

When they assume that recurrent influence, they also tend to worsen in each iteration of the cycle and therefore these cycles grows deeper and away from our everyday perceptions of reality (underlying).  These structures do also one more thing.  They typically learn to defy any efforts on our part to ‘correct’ the situation or a problem with the programmes or initiatives institutions come up with.  Therefore programme or activity implementation efforts tend to stand to fail or do not reach the goals set for them.

Identifying these vicious circles require investigation and a tactic that is very different from the straight-line approaches we are used to when dealing with them.  One that requires the mind ‘to bend’.  The causality is not that much different from one nation to another (and so much less differences exist between institutions), nevertheless, rather than leave participants with the solution, I prefer participants learn to discover the reasons jointly with each other whilst with the facilitator.  This is strategic.

In this way, the participants learn to leave the sessions carrying with them in their minds and hearts ways to continue to deepen their practice with each other over time to get to the bottom of the issue, and eventually to reach there by themselves.